The Motive that Dares not Speak its Name
Over on the First Things website (yes, I regularly peek surreptitiously), Richard Neuhaus has some reflections on a new book by Austin Dacey, The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.
Here is Dacey’s thesis: “Secularists have the moral high ground, if they will only claim it, and in so doing break the religious monopoly on the language of ethics and values. . . . Secular liberalism is in disarray. Abroad, the confrontation with Islamic totalitarianism shakes the complacency of the open society. At home, liberals are soul searching. This book attempts to show how they can reclaim the language of meaning, morality, and values in the culture wars at home and in the struggle for toleration abroad. They must remove the gag order on ethics, values, and religion in public debate; hold religious claims accountable to public criticism; rediscover the secular moral conscience; and advance a moral case for their values of personal autonomy, equality, toleration, self-criticism, and well-being.”
On almost all the hot-button issues—abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.—Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees. I expect he would not agree that the secularist moral vision entails a quasi-religious understanding of reality, but one step at a time, and The Secular Conscience is a critically important first step.
I have not read the book and, full disclosure, I had never even heard of the author before. I would be interested in any other takes on either the book or its author. But a book that begins with a poem by Czeslaw Milosz has already captured my attention:
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it . . .
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good . . .
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit,
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.